Burt Britton had the uncanny knack—or perhaps just fearlessness—to persuade artists and writers, architects and sports stars to show him how they saw themselves.
Collecting self-portraits of famous people, or “the madness,” as he calls it, started in the 1960s, when the longtime bookseller was bartending for a night at New York’s Village Vanguard. Norman Mailer was trying to close down the club and haranguing Britton for drink after drink. “What do you want from me, kid?” the literary lion roared at Britton. "Norman, here, on this piece of paper, do a self-portrait for me, drink your drink, and let's call it a night,” he replied.
View Our Gallery of Britton’s Collection
Mailer obliged, and his bourbon-fueled drawing was the first of thousands of self-portraits Britton would collect, 213 of which went on the auction block last week. Though Bloomsbury Auctions’ estimates for the astonishing collection, titled Portrait of the Artist: The Burt Britton Collection, were on the high side—most drawings went unsold, and ones that did were relative steals for the bidders. An appropriately muscular stick figure of Muhammad Ali, collected by Britton at an event at a Harlem church, sold for $1,400, well below the $2,000-$3,000 estimated price.
Working at the famed Strand bookstore in New York for a decade, and later as one of the early co-owners of Books & Company on Madison Avenue, Britton befriended many of the writers and artists whose portraits he gathered. And his collection reads like a who’s who of Manhattan during a bygone era: Brassaï, David Hockney, Allen Ginsberg, and Tom Wolfe all sketched for him. In 1976, Britton published a book from the drawings, Self-Portrait: Book People Picture Themselves, which has since gone out of print, leaving the auction the only place to see Paul Newman’s cheeky interpretation of himself in his later years.
Many of the portraits were drawn during the height of the scribbler’s fame and show how their life and work were intertwined. Photographer André Kertész drew his eye as a lens and claimed, “I am the camera!” Where the Wild Things Are author and illustrator Maurice Sendak sketched himself as one of his Wild Things, hands crossed over a furry stomach, six years after his book hit the shelves.
Writers weren’t short on creativity either. The blind Argentine novelist Jorge Luis Borges sketched his drawing using one finger guided by his free hand. True to form, Joan Didion created her portrait, inscribing a sheet of lined paper with faults, including, “Too thin. Astigmatic. Has no visual sense of self,” and her thumbprint.
On most of the ink or pencil drawings, an autograph, typically the prized possession for any other collector, is merely an afterthought to the rare glimpse of an artist’s self-expression. Britton himself has been somewhat reclusive, and a self-portrait of the collector was nowhere to be found in the book or auction, which may only represent a quarter of his vast—and enviable—trove. It’s only fitting that the quiet man among the book stacks was able to draw out intimate details from artists used to hiding behind their own work.
Kara Cutruzzula is an assistant editor at The Daily Beast.